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A Lost Politics

The Russian Empire 1801-1917

by Hugh Seton-Watson
Oxford, 813 pp., $10.00

Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology

edited by Marc Raeff, with an Introduction by Isaiah Berlin
Harcourt, Brace & World, 404 pp., $5.25 (paper)

Russian Philosophy

edited by James M. Edie, edited by James P. Scanlan, edited by Mary Barbara Zeldin, with the collaboration of George L. Kline
Quadrangle Books, Vol. III, 521 pp., $8.50

Historical Letters

by Peter Lavrov, translated with an Introduction and Notes by James P. Scanlan
California, 371 pp., $9.50

The Russian Anarchists

by Paul Avrich
Princeton, 303 pp., $7.50

Danilevsky: A Russian Totalitarian

by Robert E. MacMaster
Harvard, 368 pp., $7.95

Russian Political Thought: An Introduction

by Thornton Anderson
Cornell, 444 pp., $9.75

The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture

by James H. Billington
Knopf, 786 pp., $15.00

There is a continuing interest in the history of political thought, an enduring curiosity to learn how men in the past have reflected on the state, on the process of living together in society, and on the conditions of the just and good life. Even the current fashion for concrete sociological enquiries has not wholly displaced our interest in the forms of speculation to which we give the name “political thought,” This interest is no mere idle intellectual curiosity. Political thought is an integral part of the history of mankind. Take away the few writers on politics on the European scene in the last few centuries whose names first spring to mind—Machiavelli, Calvin, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx—and history becomes meaningless. Can the history of Europe and America be understood without these names? All the more strange does it seem, therefore, that we have for generations been writing and talking about the history of Russia with only the most shadowy equipment, in the English language, for studying Russian political thought—beyond, perhaps, Herzen or Lenin.

Let it be granted then that political thought illuminates and explains the nature of the society into which we are born. In one sense the illumination which the great political thinkers provide is universally applicable: the insight of Machiavelli into the nature of rule, or the categories of Aristotle which map out the varieties of political systems, work as well in Russia as in America, in the sixteenth or in the twentieth century. But universality of insights does not mean uniformity of institutions. In spite of the views of the enlightenment, typified, perhaps, by Destutt de Tracy, or in Russia by most of the Decembrists, political institutions are far from uniform, they do not have in common an inevitable process of evolution irrespective of place: from autocracy to monarchy and then to republic, or the like. On the contrary, all historical experience seems to suggest that, even if they sometimes share a family likeness, institutions in different countries rise and fall, flourish or decline, change and adapt, in accordance with the peculiarities of tradition, history, cultural inheritance, religion, and many other factors that shape them. Of vital importance among these factors is political thought: the way men think about their institutions influences the institution; and, at the same time, the trials and obstacles faced by institutions, the success and failure in meeting them, influence the way in which men think about politics.

One of the many merits of Hugh Seton-Watson’s recent monumental volume on Russia’s nineteenth century is that it includes an adequate account of the main trends in political thought, thus making it possible for us to discern something of this process of interaction between thought and institutions during the last century of the Empire. But the study goes back much further than the nineteenth century. The reforms of the 1860s certainly set Russia on the path of modernization. But the inheritance from Byzantium, from the Mongols perhaps, and from Muscovy influenced the fact that modernization stopped short at the single component element that could have halted the cataclysm of 1917, from which Russia has not yet recovered: that element was a modern system of workable political institutions. In a sense the history of Russian political thought is the history of that failure—the hope, the errors, the delusions, the exhortations, the laments and jubilations, the wisdom, the enthusiasms, and the follies of those Russians who tried to find a solution for the political future of their country.

Indeed, the fascination of Russian political thought lies primarily in the fact that there existed a series of problems which were quite peculiar to Russia. The question of Russia’s place in and relation to the rest of Europe was one such problem, which dominated Russian writers on politics for centuries. This was, of course, a reflection of Russia’s history and geographical position on the fringes of Europe—one cannot imagine a French political thinker spending time on the question whether France was part of Europe. One of the most brilliant and balanced contributions to this question was made by that universal genius, Pushkin (who was himself the living proof that Russian culture was nothing if not European). The full study of Pushkin’s unsystematic but significant contribution to political thought in Russia still remains to be undertaken.

Another almost uniquely Russian problem (there are occasional traces of it in the political thought of Spain) was the problem of backwardness—the backwardness that was exemplified by serfdom, and by the lack of legal and political institutions. Was this backwardness merely a handicap that had to be overcome as soon as possible, so that Russia could take her place by the side of the more advanced European countries—as most of the Decembrists believed, and as a long line of thinkers from Petrashevsky to Struve and Plekhanov also believed? Or was backwardness, on the contrary, a blessing in disguise, a virtue to be taken advantage of, a promise that Russia had a greater and better future before her than the already decadent countries further West? So the Slavophiles believed along with Chernyshevsky and the later Herzen, and, in some moods, Lenin. There were also other circumstances peculiar to Russia which are constantly reflected in her political thinking. There was the stubborn refusal of the autocracy to adapt itself to changing conditions—a refusal which was at least as much due to the traditions of monarchy derived from Byzantium and Muscovy as to the obstinacy of individual monarchs. Another was the absence in Russia of the legal tradition which Roman Law had bequeathed to most of the rest of Europe. The list could easily be extended.

But, as I have suggested, political problems, if not uniform, do partake of some elements of universality. As the story of political thought in its Russian environment unfolds, a number of perennial and universal problems present themselves—in the Russian context, it is true, but nevertheless of relevance to a much wider scene. Reform or revolution—this was one of the constantly recurring themes. Must a rotten polity be wrecked before it can be rebuilt, or should the new and better society nevertheless be built on the foundations of the old? In the past in Russia, as now in a number of countries, the answer to this question tended to be determined more by emotional and psychological factors than by rational argument. There was, moreover, a good deal more reason for despairing of reform in, say, nineteenth-century Russia than in many other places at many different periods of history. Nevertheless, the Russian discussion of the problem and the Russian experience have something of value to contribute to this question. Again, take the role of violence. Nechaev and Bakunin had much to say about the importance of violence as a factor of unity, as the binding force in a society or group, a century before the same ideas emerged in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon. The early Russian revolutionaries were also much preoccupied with the question of when violence was morally justified. This question is also one of universal and continuing relevance.

I could add many other illustrations to this list, but one more must suffice. Theories of the functions of an elite run right through modern Russian political thought, from Pushkin to Lenin. Pisarev, Lavrov, Mikhailovsky, and many others had quite original and important things to say on the subject. Yet their views are seldom taken into account in discussions of the topic in the English-speaking world because their works are for the most part inaccessible to those who cannot read Russian. Indeed, knowledge of Russian political thought in the English-speaking world, if it exists at all (except among Slavic studies specialists, of course), has hitherto tended to be confined to the translated and well-publicized—the names of Bakunin, Herzen, Dostoevsky, an occasional fragment of Soloviev, the works of Berdiaev and Lenin virtually exhaust the list.

Several very welcome recent additions to the meager literature in the English language on the subject may in time do a good deal to restore some better proportion. Two quite excellent anthologies published recently offer the student of Russian political thought a taste—more than a mouthful if less than a meal—of the rich variety available hitherto only to those who read Russian with fluency. (And writings in Russian on political thought are virtually inaccessible to those whose Russian is less than perfect.) One, Russian Intellectual History, edited by Marc Raeff, and sponsored by the Russian Institute of Columbia University, provides a good selection of well-translated and well-chosen extracts from writers on political themes over two centuries—from the eighteenth to the twentieth. The other anthology, Russian Philosophy, is both much larger in size and wider in scope, since its aim is to provide a selection not only of political writing, but of philosophical writing generally. Again, the quite excellent translation, the short but useful notes of introduction, and the wise selection offer the reader a good Cook’s tour through the intellectual history of Russia. To these two anthologies should also be added the scholarly and readable translation by Mr. Scanlan of Lavrov’s Historical Letters, edited with a valuable and sound introduction.

In order to understand the full impact of Lavrov on his generation (the Historical Letters were first published in 1868-69), one has to see them in relation to the intellectual atmosphere of the times. The intellectuals of the Sixties were intoxicated with the heavy wine of “nihilism”—the word was revived, but not coined, by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons, and the nihilist was personified in Bazarov. The nihilist stood for science, for skepticism, for “thinking realism,” as Pisarev called it. The “thinking realist” had no time for moral imperatives: he stood for skepticism, for challenge of all accepted standards, for all the exciting certainties which the natural sciences seemed to offer a hundred years ago. Lavrov recalled the Russian intellectual to a sphere which was instinctively much more natural to him: the sphere of morality. He reminded the intellectual, who was usually a member of the gentry, of the debt that he owed to the people at whose expense he had gained his education and his privileges. His interpretations of history rested on moral purpose: unlike Pasarev, who had urged self-improvement for an elite, Lavrov urged the need to transform the whole social order. Very far from a revolutionary, Lavrov nevertheless contributed to a considerable extent to the development of revolutionary fervor in the Seventies and Eighties.

Not the least merit of both anthologies is that they will sometimes save the reader who has no Russian but is curious about the subject from struggling with the peculiar language quaintly named “English” which is employed by the Foreign Languages Publication enterprise of the USSR for the provision of translations of some of the radical political thinkers. Of course, no anthology can please every reader, just as no Cook’s Tour can take into account the preferences of every tourist. However, my complaints of omission are not so much an indication of injured personal predilections as an indication of the extent to which Russian intellectual history is vastly richer than two anthologies can suggest, and as a plea for many more translations of this caliber. Where is Pushkin, the most perceptive and penetrating analyst of the effect on Russia of that country’s never having experienced feudalism? Where is Granovsky, who anticipated by a hundred years, and in my view excelled, our modern critics of historical determinism? Where is Chicherin, who is surpassed only by Burke in his analysis of the relation between political institutions and tradition? And whose examination of the relationship between the state and society is as relevant, and as original, today as it was some eighty years ago when it was published? Where are Shipov, Potresov, and Struve?

The list could be much extended, but I have said enough to indicate that for the English reader there still remains a vast area of Russian intellectual history to be profitably explored. Of course one must not forget the specific corners that have already been well studied and described by historians during the past two decades. There is a respectable literature on Russian populism and social democracy, and the Russian anarchists have now also found a sympathetic and able chronicler in Professor Avrich’s timely book. No one can understand contemporary anarchism without some knowledge of its Russian origins and fate. The story of the anarchists is one of revolt against tyranny—from the tyranny of Nicholas I to the tyranny of the Bolsheviks. But the moral of the story is that revolt is not enough: victory goes to those who are clever and organized enough to exploit the chaos which anarchists create for their own ends—a tyranny worse than the one against which the revolt was directed. The noble passions which a Bakunin inspires are harnessed by a Lenin to produce the commissar state, in which the anarchists themselves are doomed to perish. But this seems to be a lesson which every generation has to learn anew.

A number of individuals, including Mikhailovsky, Stankevich, Khomiakov, Katkov, Speransky, Plekhanov, Martov, and now Danilevsky, have been fortunate in their biographers. (One could have wished, though, that MacMaster had not introduced into his biography the somewhat anachronistic and really quite irrelevant concept of “Totalitarianism,” which in context means little more than Danilevsky’s intolerant, irrational, and aggressive nationalism.) But the time is also ripe for syntheses. This is particularly important in view of the undue emphasis which has usually been laid in writing in English on the predominant importance of radical and revolutionary thought. This is in part, no doubt, an unconscious echo of post-revolutionary writing in Russia which tends to portray all political thought before 1917 as a mere prelude to the triumph of Bolshevism—much as in Christian writings the Old Testament appears as no more than the precursor of the New. This may perhaps in both cases be good theology, but it is very poor history. In the case of Russian political thought, the triumph of Bolshevism (which, incidentally, triumphed rather more by force than by intellectual conviction) is the beginning, not the end of the problem: why did it happen? And what other trends of thought, possibly far from irrelevant even today, have been, perhaps temporarily, swept aside by Bolshevism and the police state which has grown out of it?

Mr. Anderson’s new history of Russian political thought, following on the earlier work by Mr. Utechin, is perhaps a first step toward such a synthesis. But the author would not, I think, claim to have provided more than the “Introduction” which he has offered us, and a great deal still remains to be done. One merit of Mr. Anderson’s work is the vast bibliography which it contains of works in and translations into English, German, and French relevant to the subject. Another is his careful summary of the much neglected story of Russian political thought before the nineteenth century, which is an essential foundation for an understanding of later thought. I find Mr. Anderson weakest on the nineteenth century, and particularly on the “liberals”—which, in a Russian context, means those who wished neither to preserve the existing regime unaltered, nor to overthrow everything in one great cataclysm. Mr. Anderson seems to me to see the problems too much in modern terms—either autocracy or a modern constitutional state. That is not at all how it looked to the true liberal of the turn of the century, to Chicherin or Shipov, for example. They saw the true path of Russia’s evolution as a slow process of building on the existing foundations, slender as they were—the zemstvo, the traditional autocracy, the reformed legal system—and consequently rejected the imposition on Russia of important constitutional patterns. This is what happened in 1906 as a consequence of the revolution of 1905, with what results we now know. I think Mr. Anderson makes the mistake that the radicals of the turn of the century made he fails to see that to impose a ready-made and borrowed model on a country which has no historical basis for it is to court disaster, or at least a return to the well-rooted traditions of autocracy. I fear that the full history of Russian political thought still remains to be written. It is therefore permissible to speculate about the picture which may one day emerge when the study of the history of political discourse in Russia has received attention from scholars in some way comparable to that which has been bestowed on political thought in other parts of Europe.

Something approximating to a synthesis of Russian political thought over the centuries has also been attempted by Mr. Billington. But his extensive survey, which ranges over six centuries of Russian thought and culture, is much more than an interpretation of thinking about politics. It is a highly individual and personal reflection by a sensitive historian of the way in which he sees Russian culture, poised between saintliness and the demonic, between the visionary and the earthy. It is a fascinating, at times irritating, study, and full discussion of its main thesis would require an article many times this length. No doubt one could query some of the argument, and quarrel with some of the history. But it is precisely through bold generalizations such as this one, offered by one man’s magisterial survey of the past, that intellectual history comes alive, and we must be grateful to Mr. Billington for a considerable achievement.

However (and this is in no way a criticism of his work), it is not to him that the English-language reader can look for the full-scale panorama of Russian political speculation over the centuries. Such a panorama must above all else trace in detail the evolution in Russia of the ideas of kingship, since it is around them that virtually all political thought revolved until the ideas of revolution burst forth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It will seek to set them against comparable ideas in Europe, prevalent at the same period, in order to contrast and compare. It must trace the reasons for the disappearance—or virtual disappearance—with the rise of Muscovy of those doctrines of the limitations of monarchical power which formed the foundation of freedom in Western Europe (though such ideas persisted in Russia, to some extent at any rate, until the seventeenth century, as the work of V. Valdenberg, published in 1916, has shown). For in the last resort, the unraveling of this mystery can lead to the unraveling of the strange history of the Russian polity, so different in every way from that of those of the Europe of the Western Roman Empire.

In other words, it is not so much the bold and original interpretation that we lack; the student of Russia has never been at a loss for theories. The question of facts, however, is more complicated. What the historian of Europe who has no knowledge of Russian needs above all is more translations of the essential works of Russian political thought. And by “essential” I mean those which have not yet acquired something akin to the popularity enjoyed by Herzen and Lenin.

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